This post is published simultaneously on Chinese Books for Young Readers
Kirkus reviewer Rachel Yung-Hsin Wang has lived and worked in many parts of the world, and is something of a polyglot. Earlier this year she completed an MFA in Writing for Children at Simmons University, having won a Lee & Low and Simmons Friends Scholarship. We were keen to hear more about her time at Simmons and about her interest in children’s literature. Rachel has also recently joined the award jury for the GLLI Translated Young Adult Literature Award. Thank you, Rachel, for agreeing to this interview!
Please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?
I love stories. In 40 years of living, studying, and traveling around the world working in a number of countries and learning different languages, I became devoted to promoting awareness and understanding across cultures and between people of various backgrounds. My foray into literature for young people is an extension of that pursuit to facilitate exchanges of stories between languages and contexts. Whether as a writer, translator, reviewer, or editor, I aim to contribute to the increasingly multicultural and multilingual bodies of work as well as their associated communities and diaspora.
Could you tell us more about the MFA in Writing for Children programme, Simmons University and about your experience on the programme?
Simmons’s MFA in Writing for Children programme is straightforward: the requirements are evenly split between critical studies and creative writing. I was able to do most of my coursework at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. In addition to being a unique museum and repository, the Carle has great facilities for students, including a well-stocked research library and a fabulous picture book library. Being immersed in that environment reminded me of my love of visual art and curation, and I gravitated towards picture books as I explored the symbiotic relationships between texts and illustrations. I realized the most rewarding picture books—and I might argue the same about works in verse—do not dictate how they should be viewed, but visually engage and inspire readers to discover multimodal content and create meaning for themselves with each reading.
Whilst pursuing my coursework and writing, I was steeped in children’s literature for two full years. The academic endeavour and the certification aside, it was an opportunity to read numerous books for young readers—often for the very first time, to revisit my own childhood, to reflect on parenting and teaching practices across cultures and over time, and to explore childhood as a social and cultural construct. In the process, I developed a deeper understanding of the critical role of librarians as gatekeepers.
The Lee & Low and Friends Scholarship was created as “a pathway for underrepresented students to enter the field of children’s literature”, and, of course, Lee & Low is well-known for its drive to diversify the publishing industry. How did these aims bear out for you on the programme?
As a pathway for myself and my professional development, the scholarship certainly fulfilled its aim. I learned about the field of children’s literature through a primarily Anglo-American tradition, developed several manuscripts, networked with people in the publishing industry, and gained insights into this competitive business. I was grateful for my solid foundations as a literature major that enabled me—even decades later—to conjure the requisite skills for tackling graduate studies.
Two courses I took specifically highlighted diversity in children’s literature. One was called Culture Matters, in which everyone was keen and ready to tune in to different backgrounds, storytelling approaches, and perceptions of “mirrors and windows”—thank you, Dr Rudine Sims Bishop—all the while examining the evolving critical criteria and assessment standards. The other course focused on picture books which, in my case, enabled natural connections and logical extensions given my background in visual art. In retrospect, both of these courses embrace the reader as central—and the reader in this sense refers not only to the child reader, but also the graduate student reader. Thus, the perspective by definition becomes pluralistic. I would love to see more courses take a similar approach: that is to say, embed the acknowledgment and awareness of the increasingly international and intersectional influences in children’s literature. The field is evolving, and more intentional focus on the design of selected cornerstone courses, I believe, would go a long way towards achieving meaningful and substantive diversity.
You read a lot of books while you were doing the MFA. Have you read any Chinese books for young readers recently that have really impressed you?
Yes! The first is a 2019 illustrated book that explains the 24 Solar Terms 二十四節氣 of the Chinese almanac. A pair of anthropomorphic animals—Tiger and Dog—engage in humorous dialogues that explain this time-tested system of tracking the sun: how it informed agricultural practices and influenced folk customs that are relevant to this day. The language is theatrical yet accessible, and reminiscent of Chinese traditional performance arts. The text invites reading aloud, and the illustrations are whimsically nostalgic. Quite good fun!
Not long ago, I finished reading the third book in a series (of five, thus far unique and special) by Kevin Cheng 鄭宗弦, a Taiwanese writer who is both prolific and adept at contextualizing complex cultural history for young readers. This set of fantasy-cum-realistic fiction is inspired by specific artifacts housed in Taipei’s National Palace Museum (NPM), where I worked straight out of university, hence I was drawn to the story’s premise and setting. The protagonists are eleven years old: the boy hails from contemporary Taiwan, and the girl is a Mongolian princess from the Qing dynasty. They meet through fantastical circumstances, and end up traveling through time in order to stop a powerful villain from wreaking havoc and threatening their loved ones as well as world peace. Along the way, readers encounter an array of ancient history and material cultures, including NPM’s renowned collection, glimpses of life inside the Forbidden City, plus highlights of traditional music such as Taiwanese opera and Mongolian throat singing. That said, this series would be incredibly challenging to translate into English: how might one establish the story world for readers who do not have background knowledge, and still make the tale compelling and engaging?
Part of Cheng’s achievement is crafting imaginative, intriguing, lighthearted tales that weave in substantial—yet digestible—elements of history and culture. And I LOVE how he folds Chinese food and cooking into each volume with generous lashings of humour. As writers, we sometimes are encouraged to write the books we want to read. In this case, I am delighted beyond words to encounter a series I might have aspired to create once upon a time, yet now I can skip straight to the enjoyment of reading—thank you, Kevin Cheng!
Last year, I also acquired another series Cheng wrote about young warriors-in-training—in the kitchen, of course! The Chinese title evokes the martial arts stories I enjoy; I look forward to tucking in over a long weekend. [Ed: there is a summary and sample translation in English on the Books from Taiwan website]
As for picture books, I just read three which Iwould recommend. They are part of a series highlighting Chinese culture (中華文化) and the topics are novel ways to enjoy rice, tea and tofu.
I especially appreciate the easy-to-understand descriptions of history and production, combined with updated storytelling approaches and visual representations that show people from various cultures sharing these foods. In “Tofu”, for example, a young woman whose family runs a tofu shop invites three classmates home to try her parents’ tofu-based cooking; then on a return visit, they each bring a tofu dish inspired by their respective homes in Korea, Japan, and Italy. The melding of tradition with contemporary lifestyles shows a keen awareness of an interconnected global environment as well as a sensitivity towards diverse perspectives. In “Tea”, the text uses mixed verse that rhymes in places and lends itself to reading aloud with a resonance that lingers, just as teas’ aromas do.
- “Tofu” 豆腐 by Hao Guangcai 郝廣才, illus. Yuan Shuji 袁樹基, Grimm Press, 2019 (image source: Grimm Press)
- “Rice” 米食樂 by Hao Guangcai 郝廣才, illus. Paolo Domeniconi 多明尼可尼, Grimm Press, 2018 (image source: Grimm Press)
- “Tea” 茶 by Hao Guangcai 郝廣才, illus. Monica Barengo 莫妮卡貝瑞, Grimm Press, 2018 (image source: Grimm Press)
I would like to mention two more picture books:
The first is 看不見, which provides sighted readers with a perspective on blindness. Almost the entire book is rendered in black and white, and what intrigues me most is the way Chinese characters are illustrated to mimic the sounds they signify. I did an experiment with someone who knows no Chinese language and asked her to guess at the sounds that might correlate with the words, based on how they were constructed and laid out on the page. She got 99% correct! Of course, I would not pass that off as scientific datum; instead, it is a successful sample of communication across linguistic barriers. This book was published several years ago, and it continues to impress me.
The other, 射日奔月, features a retelling of the legend of Hou Yi and Chang E. (2012). The illustrations by Russian artist Pavel Tatarnikov 塔塔尼可夫 blew me away due to the ethereal interpretations of a Chinese classic. There is a short video that brings the artwork to life:
Finally, we’d love to know more about your own childhood reading!
If I were to pick a single story from my own childhood, then my favorite would be the adapted Journey to the West 西游記 starring the Monkey King and his cohort. The main appeal was that I identified with each of the characters on some level—and above all with the horse. As someone now working with literature for young people, I have a newfound appreciation for this timeless classic because it offers something for everyone: adventure, comedy, fantasy, mythology, relatable characters, a gripping plot, timeless themes, plus a basic moral compass.
Thank you very much for asking such thought-provoking questions—I learned a lot. Happy reading!